College employees are getting fired for not getting the COVID-19 vaccine

Dive Brief:

  • College employees across the U.S. from faculty to football coaches are beginning to be fired or put on leave for failing to comply with their respective institutions’ mandates that faculty and staff be vaccinated against the coronavirus. 
  • Many of the vaccine requirements in higher education stem from President Joe Biden’s order that those who work for federal contractors be inoculated against the virus. 
  • Originally, workers on federal contracts needed to be vaccinated by early December under Biden’s mandate, but now they must receive their final vaccine dose by Jan. 4. That matches another set of federal regulations covering employers with 100 or more workers. A federal appeals court, however, recently extended a block on the large-employer mandate, which would allow for a weekly testing regimen as an alternative to vaccination.

Dive Insight:

Some colleges issued vaccine requirements close to when the shots became widely available, while others did not institute them until Biden announced the federal orders in September. More than 1,100 colleges have required the vaccine for at least some of their students and employees, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education database.

Institutions’ mandates carve out medical or religious exceptions, and many colleges have seen broad compliance.

However, some employees have refused to be vaccinated, resulting in their dismissal or temporary suspension.

Michigan State University fired two employees who failed to get their shots. The pair, a video producer and instructor at Michigan State’s extension program, sued the university, arguing they have natural immunity from contracting the coronavirus and therefore be exempted from the mandate. Their attorney, Jenin Younes of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, said in a statement that “MSU has chosen to pursue a vindictive path, unsupportable by any science,” calling the mandate unconstitutional. 

A federal judge had upheld Michigan State’s requirement in October. Courts have typically sided with universities enforcing these requirements. The U.S. Supreme Court also declined to take up one of the first lawsuits challenging a college vaccine rule at Indiana University.

Nearly 94% of Michigan State employees have reported they are vaccinated. This summer, the university told students and employees to be vaccinated by Aug. 31.

Elsewhere in the state, the University of Michigan has put fewer than 10 employees on a 30-day, unpaid leave for not reporting their vaccine status, The Detroit News reported. The university had told students and employees to submit proof of vaccination by Aug. 30, prior to the start of the fall term. Some bargaining agreements initially had exempted some U of Michigan and Michigan Medicine employees from a vaccine mandate, but federal requirements overrode those, MLive reported

Also in Michigan, an adjunct instructor at St. Clair County Community College was fired in August for not confirming his vaccination status. The college had required employees to receive their first vaccine dose by Aug. 23.

At the University of Kentucky, 24 employees were placed on leave for failing to meet its vaccine and testing requirements. The university did not make the shots mandatory, but it required unvaccinated employees to be tested regularly for the coronavirus. About 97% of faculty and 92% of staff had been fully vaccinated or were in the process of doing so as of Nov. 10

And on the West Coast, last month up to nine workers with California’s State Center Community College District were put on administrative leave, and another resigned, over a vaccine mandate, according to the Fresno Bee. A spokesperson for the district did not immediately respond to a question as to whether those employees were still on leave.

Even prominent officials have not escaped punishment. Washington State University fired its vaunted head football coach, Nick Rolovich, and four of his assistants for violating vaccine requirements. Rolovich, who was the state’s highest-paid employee, has appealed his termination. He had argued for a religious exemption but was denied. An attorney for Rolovich wrote to the university’s athletics director, Patrick Chun, saying Chun’s conduct had been “illegal and unconstitutional.”

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